Another Oklahoma Ethics Commission meeting is slated in the coming days, and another round of verbal barbs over free speech and public integrity is expected. But this time, the commissioners will have the final say.
The group of five commissioners is scheduled to vote on a host of ethics rules changes concerning lobbying and political campaigns. Should the commission approve the proposals, it will continue a trend over the past couple of years of toughening state ethics laws. Previously, the commission has adopted rules that attempted to restrict lobbyist influence with state officials. Those changes included reducing the amount of money lobbyists can spend on legislators, requiring more disclosure of lobbyists' gifts and campaign donations and curtailing the time period of giving gifts and campaign donations.
On Jan. 23, the commission will vote on more than a dozen amendments, ranging from disclosure of campaign expenditures to an outright ban on lobbyist gifts. At previous meetings, several lobbyists spoke against the ban, calling the move "silly." Commissioner Don Bingham said he is concerned about the proposal.
"I still want to collect information on the pros and cons of our new gift limit before we consider additional changes to the limit," Bingham said.
Last year, the commission unanimously approved reducing the amount of money a lobbyist could spend on a legislator or state official during the calendar year from $300 to $100.
Lobbyist Pat McFerron with CMA Strategies said he considers caps on giving as limiting free speech and that no matter how many rules the commission sets down, there will always be ways around the rules. He mentioned one state which had such a rule that lobbyists would instead write a check to the legislator's campaign.
"Therefore, it's not a gift but a campaign donation," McFerron said. "People find a way around this to gain access."
McFerron would prefer to simply require lobbyists and state officials to provide full disclosure to the ethics commission on all gifts and contributions.
But Commissioner John Raley has argued in previous meetings that full disclosure may not provide the type of reform he is after. Raley's concern is lobbyists have too much access and influence with the Legislature. He wants a balance in place where the general public has as much access to lawmakers as lobbyists do.
Another proposal the commission will consider is whether to require more detailed information on campaign expenditure reports. Currently, a candidate only has to write down in vague terms when expenditures were made from the campaign fund. The proposal would require the name of the person or company who received the expenditure, the address and specifically what the purpose of the expenditure was for.
McFerron said he did not have a problem with the concept of the proposal.
"The problem is we don't enforce the laws we have now," McFerron said. "There are people out there that will violate those rules and nothing ever happens, especially if they (candidates) lose."
If the proposals are approved, they will go into effect July 1 unless the Legislature or governor intervene during the upcoming session.
Friday's meeting may also have heated words from the commission over recent statements made by some legislators over the agency's budget. At a hearing last week, members of the House Appropriations Committee berated commission Executive Director Marilyn Hughes over pay raises agency employees received. Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, who chairs the House committee, was upset that he was not informed by the agency about the raises, although the raises were posted on an agenda, voted on in an open meeting of the commission and widely reported in newspapers.
Committee members questioned why they should grant the commission's request for a budget increase this year when the money may not go toward helping the commission fulfill its top priorities.
After the meeting, Hughes sent out a report to try and answer some of the committee questions thrown at her. She explained that after the first three funding priorities were met with last year's budget increase, there was money left over for pay raises. Hughes also explained that her staff hadn't received a pay raise since 1994. "Scott Cooper